Lillie is “pretty much always looking for more and other work,” often juggling more jobs than she can legitimately handle. But that’s what she has to do to get by.
The 25-year-old theater teacher, who opted not to share her last name to protect her privacy, didn’t finish college. While she attended for four years and some change at different universities, she tells Fortune, the pandemic and mental health struggles prevented her from getting a degree. But that didn’t keep her from joining the 43.5 million Americans saddled with federal student loan debt.
“I’m in an insane amount of debt from school and dumb mistakes I made as a young adult,” says Lillie, who lives in Atlanta with her fiancée, who is in school to become a therapist. “While my debt isn’t as bad as I know some people’s is, it’s enough that it’s hard to chip away at it on what little money I make.”
Finding a substantial job that pays enough without a bachelor’s degree proved difficult. So, Lillie began juggling multiple jobs in 2020 to make ends meet. Throughout the early days of the pandemic, she says she mostly taught online and edited videos of students for musicals “so the kids could still perform, but in a digital setting.” More recently, she worked at Barnes & Noble, picked up shifts at an escape room, gave private voice lessons, and nabbed whatever contract work she could get teaching theater to kids in schools, after-school programs, and other organizations.
Hustling to work that many jobs was bad for her mental health and social life, she says, but it afforded her roughly $2,500 a month—“usually what I need for expenses.”
Lillie is one of the eight million working Americans, or 5%, working multiple jobs, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this is around the same share as those in 2019, side gigs might be twice as common as the jobs data suggests: Nearly 10% of workers have a main job and at least one other side gig, per WFH research. And more Americans report having a side hustle than those who did in 2020. As inflation surged to a 40-year high and a housing crisis sent Americans into a tizzy, balancing side gigs to covers costs is a position that more and more Americans have found themselves in.
About 41% of Americans with side hustles say they need the additional cash to cover everyday expenses, according to a 2022 Bankrate survey. That’s up from the 31% of U.S. workers who said the same in 2019, reflecting the financial state of the country and people’s lives—women and millennials, particularly younger millennials, suffer the most. A separate study finds that 64% of U.S. consumers, equivalent to 166 million Americans, feel they’re living paycheck to paycheck; even almost half of those raking in at least $100,000 a year reported living this way.
But juggling multiple jobs to keep up with the cost of living is exhausting and draining, Lillie says, adding that it’s put a strain on her relationship and kept her from seeing her friends as much as she’d like. There are days, she adds, where the thought of talking to someone else is too much. But she also knows this is what she has to do for now to make life work.
Barely breaking minimum wage
At the moment though, Lillie is working just one job—a five-month contract with a traveling children’s theater that requires her to work anywhere from 45 to 60 hours a week. She’s doing something she loves but earning less than when she was collecting multiple paychecks, making money tighter. She anticipates working multiple jobs again once her contract’s up; she’ll have to.
“As much as I’m enjoying the work, I make minimum wage based on the state I’m traveling to,” Lillie says. “I don’t even break $800 for two weeks of work most weeks, which is upsetting to say the least… There are days where I come home and go straight into bed and cry.”
Lillie says she makes sure to tell her employers when she’s working multiple jobs, and that her schedule can be a nightmare. She recently applied for a position at an interactive museum that wanted her to sign an exclusivity clause. It was good pay, but it wouldn’t have been enough without supplemental income, she says.
It’s taken some time, but she says she’s learned to cope a little better with the stress—not that it necessarily makes her situation easier. It’s helped that she and her fiancée were able to buy a house with money her fiancée’s grandfather left her. The mortgage is a fraction of the rent they paid previously. What little money she makes now goes toward food, paying off debt, or into savings. She also sends a little money home to her fiancée.
She acknowledges that she needs to find a “real” full-time job soon, even if it’s not what she’s passionate about. She’ll soon turn 26; there’s a sense it’s time to “grow up,” she says, plus she needs health insurance. Her ultimate goal is to one day open her own business running an after-school arts program where parents would pay tuition, so she can work on her own time. Her dream is to eventually also establish a non-profit that, with money from grants, would put on productions and specialized workshops for schools. But for now, she’ll struggle, working a job she loves.
“I’ve decided that I’m willing to struggle for cash a little if it means that I get to keep my sanity intact,” Lillie says. “I know not everyone has that option, so I feel really fortunate. But still, I largely think that having to live this way is never worth it.”
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